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THE ARGUMENT CULTURE by Deborah Tannen

THE ARGUMENT CULTURE

Moving from Debate to Dialogue

By Deborah Tannen

Pub Date: March 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-45602-3
Publisher: Random House

 Tannen, who has gained celebrity for analyzing male/female verbal exchanges, moves into a broader realm in this often interesting but sometimes vague book. We live in a polarizing ``culture of critique,'' maintains Tannen (Sociolinguistics/ Georgetown Univ.; You Just Don't Understand, 1990, etc.) as she explores our compulsively combative rhetoric in such predictable areas as the mass media, politics, and the law (with the latter, as she points out, often marred by litigators' ``pit bull'' tactics). To specify the problem and better pursue a cure, she coins a new term, ``agonism,'' defined as ``using opposition as a required and ubiquitous way to approach issues, rather than as one of many possibilities of getting things done by talk.'' And she calls agonism too popular and prevalent, an almost automatic confrontational tactic. Though accurate enough, such observations are in themselves a trifle familiar. More searching are Tannen's comments on male and female styles of conflict resolution and on ``ritual fighting'' in such places as Bali, Crete, and Ireland's Tory Islands, as well as her reflections on the implications of pervasive debunking and one-upmanship in academic life. ``When there is a need to make others wrong, the temptation is great to oversimplify at best, and at worst to distort or even misrepresent other positions, the better to refute them. . . . Straw men spring up like scarecrows in a cornfield.'' Tannen is a fine, crisp writer and very skillful in succinctly synthesizing her material and advancing her argument. But her main point isn't new, nor does she look far enough beyond the culture of language to explain the phenomenon she describes. Consequently her solutions (such as advising that people talk about all sides, as opposed to both sides, of an issue) feel insufficient. Perhaps our polemical society is too far gone in fetishizing the often harsh culture of American capitalist individualism for such rhetorical nostrums to have much effect.